Crapwagon Outtake: 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn

The Nissan Sentra SE-R was often compared to Nissan’s OG hot sedan — the 510. With decent power and handling in a three-box profile, I can see the resemblance. The factory limited-slip differential helped put all those whopping 140 horsepower to the ground better than most other front drivers.

And that SR20DE engine also pulls a premium the week before Race Wars.

For several years, I was a serial beater buyer. I’d drop a thousand bucks — often less — on a cheap car, drive it until it cost too much to repair, then head back to Craigslist for another helping of crapwagon.

As my $400 Accord had just popped a head gasket, I decided to spend a bit more on an “interesting” car. It was the spring of 2008 and I’d found a 1991 Nissan Sentra SE-R about twenty minutes from home. The car was relatively rust free as it had been towed behind an RV for most of its miles. The clearcoat on the black paint, however, was peeling like my pasty skin after a day at the beach.

This 1991 SE-R looks like a cleaner sister to my long-departed car, though the two-hundred-thousand-plus miles is a concern. The seller notes that the car needs some bodywork, but I don’t notice anything in the pictures given on eBay.

There aren’t many good ones left, so this particular SE-R may be worth the work.

As for my car, it was one of the few beaters that left my driveway intact. That fall, my second daughter was born, and I couldn’t fit her rear-facing baby bucket behind me. Thus, the crapwagon cycle continued to a $300 Volvo wagon.

Chris Tonn
Chris Tonn

Some enthusiasts say they were born with gasoline in their veins. Chris Tonn, on the other hand, had rust flakes in his eyes nearly since birth. Living in salty Ohio and being hopelessly addicted to vintage British and Japanese steel will do that to you. His work has appeared in eBay Motors, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars, Reader's Digest, AutoGuide, Family Handyman, and Jalopnik. He is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he's currently looking for the safety glasses he just set down somewhere.

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  • CriticalMass CriticalMass on Oct 06, 2015

    Bought a '92 new. And it's still here. Most fun car of the 41 others that have come and gone. Not because it's the best or fastest and certainly not the prettiest. Maybe it's because it's always so willing. It begs you to go out and play. The SR-20 engine, both turbo and NA, should be in some engineering hall of fame somewhere as one of the all-time great engines. Still sought after today. So, crapwagon? Maybe. Especially if it lived in salt. But fun? Oh yes.

  • Cbrworm Cbrworm on Oct 06, 2015

    I wanted one of these so bad in '91. All the car boards at the time (on Prodigy, etc) and magazines were comparing them to the small BMWs of the time and as far back as the 2002. A buddy of mine had one that I drove frequently and I was always amazed. Super smooth, strong, 7K (as I recall) redline. I went into the Nissan dealer, picked out a white one with all the options. Went back a few days later to pick it up, carrying a check from USAA and they changed the price on me. So I left and bought something different. A couple years later I bought a loaded G20. It was not nearly the fun car that the SE-R was, and, not that I condone street racing, I was outrun in a straight line and in the twisties by my friends SE-R.

  • Acehunter Acehunter on Oct 06, 2015

    Still driving my '92. It just passed 326,600 miles.

  • CriticalMass CriticalMass on Oct 06, 2015

    CBRworm - Red line is 8K. Which it still sees with regularity. And it was on Car and Driver's 10 Best list for all four years of the B13's run IIRC. acehunter - Good onya! I'm only at 215K but I know a few others on who have gone past 400K. Chris Tonn - This one still rides/drives pretty much like new due to continuing maintenance. Every 100K I replace the lower control arms, end links and shocks. Rear control arms at 200K. Not because either was a necessity but jut to keep the ride "new". Brakes when needed and flush everything every 30K or 18 months. Has needed a half shaft three times and they are replaced with new not reground. One alternator replaced. One clutch. That's it except for tires. Lots and lots of tires but that's down to me and the other family members who have driven it. I never have had the feared 5th gear popout but Courtesy Nissan in Dallas sells a reasonably priced kit for that. I can't believe it still has the original water pump and even the original exhaust (it's stainless steel)! I don't think it would have any rust on the body at all if it had not spent three winters in the salty North. So, there will be more dollars spent on it sometime but notice there hasn't been any engine difficulties in that run. Just new wires, hoses, Mobil 1 every 5K and such. But the best part - I'm teaching my grandson to drive in it. Kids these days, lucky rascals.